Peter Albin interview by Joanna Manqueros

Joanna Manqueros hosted Dead to the World on July 30, 2014, and interviewed Peter Albin (Big Brother and the Holding Company). Listener Damien Palermo was kind enough to transcbie the talk. Enjoy!

Joanna Manqueros (host): Jerry Garcia was born in 1942. What was he doing in 1962? You brought some stuff in that’s really cool with The Wildwood Boys, so talk a little bit about his early days.

Peter Albin: Well I’ll tell ya how we met Jerry. My brother and a friend of his along with myself had a little club called The Boar’s Head in San Carlos. It was above a bookstore called The Carlos Bookstall and uh we just had it during the summer of 1961 and ‘62. First it was in this bookstall and later it moved to the Jewish Community Center in San Carlos, but we looked around for people who would be willing to play for free and who needed a place to play. We heard about this guy who was really a good guitar player down in Palo Alto or Menlo Park, I guess, playing at a place, it was a bookstore, Kepler’s Bookstore, a very famous bookstore that was used by a lot of Stanford students.

So we went down there and we asked, do you have a stage, do you have a, what do you have here? It’s a bookstore. I said, well isn’t there a guy playing music some place? He says, yeah go in the back. So we went way in the back and there’s this little area that had free coffee and a couple of tables and chairs and there’s Jerry Garcia playing finger style guitar.

So we asked him, would you like to come up to San Carlos and play? We can’t pay you anything, but you certainly are good enough and a lot of people would probably like to listen to you. He said, “Uh sure and maybe I’ll bring some of my friends, too.” We said, fine bring whoever you want. The more the merrier.

The Boar’s Head had a capacity of about 25 people. It was very small, almost as small as the area at Kepler’s, but we had a lot of people who came to play and some of Jerry Garcia’s friends came along with some of the electric people who came, mostly folk guys. There was a guy named David McQueen who sang blues and this young kid Ron McKernan also came with Jerry and Jerry would back both of these guys singing blues, but he also had some other friends. Marshall Leicester who played banjo and then he became friends with David Nelson who was a friend of mine. Actually, I went to high school with David and so they started working together, later on.

My brother and I had a group called The Liberty Hill Aristocrats, we first started in about ’61 or ‘62 with a gal named Ellen Cavanaugh and we’ll hear that a little bit later on, but we do want to play some of the early collaborations of Jerry Garcia with his friend, Bob Hunter.

JM: Those are the early days and you, Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company, you knew him when he was very young and just starting out, which is a tremendous thing. You know, he’s ranked 13th in Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest guitarists of all time. You’re talking about American history there.

PA: Yeah, he’s an amazing guitar player and after we heard him play guitar, he started learning how to play banjo around that time. He was incredible. A very influential guy was Roger Sprung and of course, Scruggs, and all the bluegrass players. Jerry also learned how to play mandolin and all sorts of instruments. He was a very talented guy, obviously, and very unique. He was very intense, in a good way, but very forceful.

One time I walked in and we were at The Top of the Tangent and he said, “I just learned how to play Nola on the banjo”, which is a very difficult song to play, even on piano or whatever and he played it very well and very fast. He said, “dig this”, you know kinda like shove it in your face kinda thing, but it was like “I can do this now, I’m learning how to do this.”

So, we were kind of let into the process that Jerry was into at that time, learning all these different songs and different styles. It was incredible.

Music: “Hoochie Koochie Man” with Pigpen on vocals and Peter Albin on guitar, Top of the Tangent 1963

JM: We listened to an unusual track and Jerry was not singing on that track. Peter Albin, who was that?

PA: That was Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and he was about 15 years old. I was backing him on guitar.

JM: What was Pigpen like as a person?

PA: He was a very quiet guy. He really knew the blues. His father had been a DJ in Oakland and played a lot of blues on his show and he had a fantastic record collection. Pigpen was versed in not only playing harmonica, which he really did quite well, but also played guitar and piano.

Now, I gotta tell you about KPFA and how important it was to both myself and Ron because we came up here a couple of times for Gert Chiarito’s Midnight Special show, which was fantastic. It was a round-robin show, one microphone and about 20 people and chairs around, circling the microphone and each person got a chance to sing a song and then passed to the next person. So Ron and I came up along with a bunch of other people. The Chambers Brothers were there, Janet Smith was there and next to me was Janis Joplin. I had never met her before. She was sitting there with her white man’s shirt on and no bra and it was like, for a young kid I was goin, “woo”. What is she gonna do and she started singing. It was incredibly loud number one and just incredible tone in her voice and she really knew the blues quite well. She and Ron kind of hit it off a little bit there and later on down the line they were kind of a thing for a while.

JM: It was the early days, wasn’t it, that you connected with Jerry. I’ve asked you to bring out some music that was kind of what was in Jerry’s ear. I’m always interested in sort of what brings someone to the music that they create and what inspired Jerry. One of the things you pulled out was Doc Watson, who is considered one of the best flat pickers in the United States and I wonder if you want to talk about that and other artists who were people who inspired Jerry Garcia.

PA: Jerry was a great flat picker, but he also was a good finger picker too. So there was besides Doc Watson and some of those great flat pickers in those days, there were the finger pickers like Merle Travis and even Chet Atkins for that matter, but going way back he was very influenced by some of the , I wanna say, the country artists of the 20’s including Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole, of course early bluegrass guys including Bill Monroe and of course, Earl Scruggs. But, he listened to everything, ya know.

JM: His dad was a musician and the family had emigrated from Spain in 1919 and his dad was from Spain, which I don’t know why, but it’s like never mentioned.

PA: Well I never met the family. I met his brother, Tiff, but that was about it. I never met his mother or father. You know, he never spoke Spanish and he didn’t really give off any kind of like Latino thing and he didn’t play that type of music. Very seldom did I ever hear him play any Spanish type of music, or Latin. It was always early American music and it was a delight to hear him replicate a lot of this stuff and then, of course, it was a delight to hear him get into a more creative line and make his own music and write his own songs. He was a pretty wonderful guy. You know and again, I think he had come up to Berkeley, to KPFA, to the Gert Chiarito Midnight Special show and participated in that and he really appreciated KPFA as well as all of his friends and the musicians who were around at the time. If it wasn’t for KPFA, I probably wouldn’t have met Janis Joplin, to tell ya the truth.

JM: What was Janis Joplin like? I’ve heard that when she got up onstage at Woodstock that people were just blown away to see a white person singing the blues.

PA: Well, she had a very strong voice, number one, and a very strong personality that backed up that voice so it was all from her heart and from her soul and she had kinda grown up, well she did grow up in the South.

JM: In Texas, in an abusive school environment, plenty of bullying is what I heard.

PA: Yes, unfortunately and she wanted to be a beatnik, you know, and come out west, which she eventually did, and she wanted to sing the blues., which she did all the time and she also sang a lot of folk music, too. When I saw her here at KPFA, at the Midnight Special, I think she did one blues song and one old folk song. So she was definitely into Americana and the roots music of the time and she was a wonderful person most of the time. You know, she was a human being, she had her moods, she had her ups and downs. She was a very well read person and you could have an intellectual conversation with her, you could have a conversation about anything, you know, give her a little bit of tequila or something like that and it might spark her onto different sorts of directions of conversation, but it was always fun and she was a very funny person. She had a very high laugh that was infectious, but most of the time it was a fun relationship that we had.

Music: “The Yodeling Song by Jimmie Rodgers

JM: Peter Albin has been choosing some beautiful stuff, and one of the things you’ve been doing has been grounding us in what Jerry Garcia was listening to when he was young. I know his father passed away in a fly fishing accident and his grandmother played bluegrass and listened to The Grande Old Opry, and it seemed like he was fascinated by bluegrass and country music. Why did you choose that cut?

PA: Well, that was Jimmie Rodgers and of course he’s one of the founding, I guess one of the early inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He kind of borrowed his style from Emmett Miller which goes way back to the vaudeville days, but he kinda brought it out into country music and to that scene and Garcia listened to a lot of that early stuff, including cowboy songs, but it’s all kind of Americana. All these kinds of music weave in and out and of course, it all seems to come together with rock and roll, and Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. They also listened to a lot of these things and incorporated it into their music as did Jerry and some of the band members of the Grateful Dead. Ron McKernan was extremely interested in the blues and very instrumental in bringing R&B into the GD’s repertoire. We probably should dig out some of those Motown things and some of those Memphis cuts.

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